Cultural Swampland

My attention was drawn a while back to an LA Times article discussing a sort of cultural revolution occurring at Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA).  Longtime curator, Paul Schimmel – “an artist favorite, seen as a champion of ambitious, intensely researched exhibitions” – was recently fired and replaced by Jeffrey Deitch – “who gained his reputation by creating buzzed-about events that often drew on youth culture, [including recent exhibitions in LA] that revolved around high-recognition names, including Dennis Hopper and James Franco.”  The ousting led to the protest and resignation of many board member-artists, including Catherine Opie and John Baldessari.

The article goes on to include other realms of art interacting warily with celebrity and fashion.

MOCA is not the only artistic institution hosting celebrity versus significance face-off. Theater has been at it for years; Broadway not only remakes big, successful film musicals, now it takes on flops (“Newsies”) and indies (“Once”) while bemoaning the lack of original plays.

Now, there’s certainly nothing new about a clash between the “old guard” and the young, up-start newcomers.  “Established” and “safe” often mean the same, and the “language of the people” is constantly evolving (or perhaps “revolving” is a more apt term), so if one doesn’t at least keep an ear out, one will eventually become irrelevant.

If there are any hard and fast rules about art and fashion they are:
1.) New is good.
2.) Everything old will be new again.

Even a master like Sondheim isn’t immune to this reality. The publishing of his two books are full of really valuable pieces of historical information, but his attempt to create a sort of rulebook, like Hammerstein did for him years before, is almost laughable in its naivety.  He himself shrugged off Hammerstein’s rulebook within the first years of his work, why assume others wouldn’t do the same to his own?

EVERYONE’S an expert. And so the culture loses a concrete sense of taste.

Now, I’ll be the first to say – culture is descriptive, not prescriptive.  So why pretend it’s otherwise?
In further regard to musical theatre and it’s current obsession with anything with a built in audience, I feel like I would be more okay with it if there was less pretense about the whole thing.

Why not just acknowledge that a lot of money is on the line and so therefore we’re not going to take risks, and we are going to allow Broadway to be the amusement park it wants to become.  Why pretend that this is art at its highest level?  What does perceived credibility get you anymore in this world, I wonder?

The artist’s job is to see what we’re becoming and react to it – thereby making the rest of us look.

The problem, as the LA Times puts it quite nicely, is “The old models don’t seem to be working, and artists, writers, journalists, entrepreneurs, producers, corporations, educators, politicians are all trying to figure out where “outside the box” becomes cultural swampland.”
And if it’s the artists’ job to react to the cultural, who’s job is it to curate that?

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